Named after its designers, Lavochkin, Gorbunov. and Gudkov, the LaGG-3 fighter was one of the most modern aircraft available to Soviet pilots when Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941. Like the De Haviland Mosquito, it was constructed almost entirely from wood, although for different reasons.
Gorbunov wanted to save on strategic materials (eg aluminium) rather than weight, so the LaGG-3 featured neither frameless monocoque fuselage nor laminated sheets of Ecuadorean balsa wood sandwiched between sheets of Canadian birch. Instead its robust timber airframe was covered in plywood and its crucial parts coated with a Bakelite lacquer, making it as heavy as an all-metal aircraft.
Rushed into production to meet the threat from the Luftwaffe’s modern fighters, the LaGG-3 had a poor power-to-weight ratio that made it slow, unresponsive, and tricky to handle. Soviet pilots soon joked that its LaGG designation stood for Lakirovanny Garantirovanny Grob – the Varnished Guaranteed Coffin.
Based on the prototype LaGG-1, the design team specified the latest 1350 horsepower Klimov M-106 engine for their new model. But this proved unreliable due to issues with its cooling system, so they had to settle for the tried and tested 1050 horsepower M-105P.
Significantly under-powered compared to the Messerschmitt Bf109, the LaGG-3 could, at least, match its firepower. 20mm ShVAK cannon and two 12.7mm Berezin BS machine guns, however, only added to its weight problem.
The LaGG-3 was therefore not only slower than the Bf109 that it faced, (357 mph top speed compared to 398 mph), but it also had a slower rate of climb (by as much as 50% from ground level). And these were not the LaGG-3’s only shortcomings. It did not respond well to the joystick, had a tendency to flip into a spin when pulled into a steep bank, and would also stall without warning at landing speeds.
As if that was not enough for Soviet pilots to contend with, the drive for mass production – up to 12 planes were rolled off the production line daily – led to serious quality control issues. Some aircraft were reportedly 25 mph slower than they should have been and the cockpit glazing on early models was so poor that pilots dispensed with the canopy altogether. This not only made their job uncomfortable, but further reduced speed. Although the wood laminate fuselage and wings were rot-proof and incombustible, they would shatter when hit with high explosive rounds.
Lavochkin fell out of favour with Stalin due to the deficiencies of his design, but worked unofficially during the winter of 1941-1942, with Gorbunov but without Gudkov, to find a solution. They adapted the nose to accept the 1850hp Shvetsov ASh-82 radial engine and armed it with twin 20mm cannon, while retaining the original airframe. This transformed the aircraft and, with a top speed now in excess of 400mh, the revised La-5 proved to be one of Soviet Russia’s most capable warplanes.